August 22, 2008 in City

Accused teacher drops effort to keep his job

His pay during leave will total nearly $138,000
By and The Spokesman-Review
 

Perkins appeared on PBS program

A day after being placed on paid administrative leave from Spokane Public Schools, teacher Peter Perkins appeared on the PBS broadcast “A Hidden Life,” which had been recorded earlier. The program focused on The Spokesman-Review’s investigation into the late Spokane Mayor Jim West’s misconduct, including his online pursuit of young men, using the trappings of his elected city office.

Perkins spoke to “Frontline” reporters about the difficulty of being a gay man in Spokane and said he unknowingly communicated with West on Gay.com. In a previous interview, school officials said that television appearance and the investigation have no connection.

A Rogers High School teacher accused of misconduct, including sexually explicit online chats about young boys, has decided to end his fight to keep his job.

Peter Perkins’ attorney says the allegations are untrue, but his client has decided to move on. “This has dragged on for a couple of years now. As far as where he’s at in his life, it’s time to move forward,” attorney Larry Kuznetz said.

Perkins, who taught for 20 years in Spokane Public Schools, has been on paid administrative leave since Nov. 13, 2006. His appeal will be withdrawn effective Oct. 24, 14 work days shy of two years on leave.

Staci Vesneske, assistant superintendent for human resources, said Perkins has been on paid administrative leave longer than any employee she can remember since coming to the district in 1999. His paychecks while on leave will end up costing taxpayers nearly $138,000.

“Obviously, we continue to be frustrated by that,” Vesneske said.

After a yearlong investigation, the district alleged that Perkins photographed and twisted the nipples of bare-chested high school boys, engaged in explicit online chats about young boys using district computers and directed students to his Myspace.com page containing sexually explicit content. In all, there were 13 allegations of misconduct.

As state law allows, Perkins asked for a hearing to appeal the district’s decision not to renew his contract. That hearing was scheduled to begin on Oct. 27.

Perkins’ attorney notified the district this week that his client would end his appeal on the last possible weekday before the hearing would begin. Had Perkins lost that hearing, he would have had other appeal options, but his paychecks would have ended.

“Clearly, the district is extremely pleased that we prevailed on the matter,” Vesneske said. “As you might imagine, the district believed that our case was overwhelmingly persuasive.”

With Perkins’ appeal withdrawn, the district’s decision stands, “which is certainly in the best interest of our students,” Vesneske said.

Kuznetz said all the allegations can be explained away, and at least one was dredged up from a past misunderstanding.

“This is the problem with reporting these things before there’s been a hearing,” Kuznetz said. The allegation that Perkins took inappropriate pictures of bare-chested boys in a bathroom setting was inaccurate, Kuznetz said. The boys were painting themselves in school colors for an athletic event and asked Perkins to take pictures of them because “that’s what he did” as a yearbook instructor, he said. “He took 100 pictures that day.”

The claim that Perkins twisted male students’ nipples stemmed from a 2001 allegation, Kuznetz said. The explicit chats ended up on the district computer via a flash drive.

“The fantasies were put there accidentally,” Kuznetz said. “The district said teachers weren’t going to have access to their computers, so he used his personal flash drive to download information. Later, when he uploaded that information, the sexually explicit chats were also on there.”

Kuznetz said the district pursued Perkins’ termination because of those chats. “The district likely had difficulty with a teacher having those thoughts, and those shouldn’t have been on his computer, he admits that.”

A state investigation into Perkins’ case remains open, said Charles Schreck, director of the office of professional practices with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. That investigation could end any of four ways: dismissal of the case, a reprimand, a license suspension, or a license revocation.

District seeks resignation

District officials say there’s nothing they can do to avoid keeping a terminated employee on the payroll while appeals continue. The statewide system is designed to give school employees every opportunity to prove their innocence.

For that reason – and because legal bills for a contested termination can exceed $100,000 – the district tries to work out agreements in which an employee voluntarily resigns.

In such cases, the district typically must provide some paid administrative leave – though not usually nearly as much as Perkins received.

Earlier this year, The Spokesman-Review requested documentation of every instance in which a Spokane Public Schools employee had received paid administrative leave from Jan. 1, 2006, through March 2008. Not including Perkins, 58 employees had received more than $500,000 combined.

Aside from Perkins, the longest leave was 141 days; the most expensive was nearly $39,000.

District officials won’t discuss specific cases. Among those in which the cause for a paid leave could be determined from public records was one in which an employee showed up smelling of alcohol and acting drunk; several in which district officials alleged unprofessional conduct, including one involving “dishonesty regarding lesson plans”; others involving inappropriate use of district computers, including accessing online pornography; and one in which an employee was accused of slapping a colleague.

Similar records from the Central Valley School District show that a middle school teacher received $141,000 in paid leave over two years as he fought allegations of a sexual relationship with a high school athlete at another school. Dana Schmerer eventually prevailed in that case and returned to the classroom in February.

Paid leave is rare

In most of the Spokane Public Schools cases, employees agree to resign.

In some cases, employees are placed on paid leave for a day or two. That often means that the district has heard about an alleged problem, looked into the matter and decided that the report was false or that the incident stems from a misunderstanding or was minor, Vesneske said. The employee might go right back to work, be counseled on avoiding future misunderstandings or be subject to a disciplinary action that falls short of suspension or termination, Vesneske said.

“Most of our employees that are disciplined are never placed on paid administrative leave,” because there’s never any indication that they’re a threat to students, Vesneske said.

An employee placed on an extended leave is free to seek other work while drawing a district paycheck, but must be available to meet with district officials and attend hearings, Vesneske said. Perkins’ attorney said his client has held no other job in the two years since he was forced out of the classroom.

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